Passing Bull 152 – Civility and civilisation


In commenting on the current White House, a friend of mine said: ‘Civility, a basis for any form of good human relations, is completely absent from their dealings with everybody’.  That struck me as true.  I looked up ‘civility’.  The Compact OED has ‘politeness and courtesy’.  The OED itself says ‘The state of being civilised’ is archaic, but offers ‘Behaviour proper to the intercourse of civilised people; politeness…Seemliness.’

The last reference reminds us of the word ‘unseemly’, a word we use all the time to describe the conduct of Donald Trump.  In discussing ‘civilisation’ elsewhere, I said that ‘Put shortly, a group of people may be said to be ‘civilised’ to the extent that its members are ‘civil’ to others.’  I see no reason to change that view – indeed, the havoc being wrought by the present White House reinforces it.

Most Australians could not give a hoot about the current debate about teaching western civilisation at universities, but, for the entertainment of at least some of us, it is really getting worked up the usual suspects at the IPA, The Australian, and Sky News.

For example, today’s Australian has a piece rubbishing the ANU and extolling the virtues of western civilisation.  One of its best selling points is, apparently, the Reformation.  Since this affirmation came from Kevin Donnelly, the champion of Catholicism, it made a substantial contribution to my enjoyment of my weeties – but, then, as I recall, Tony Abbott had made a similar claim in describing what he saw as a failure of Islam – and I thought that was hilarious, too.

It is I think fair to say that historically universities have made a hash of talking about the civilisation of the west.  Cambridge and Oxford are still hopelessly imbued with idea that ancient Greece and Rome were civilised.  Elsewhere, I said:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘civilize’ as ‘to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism, to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine’.  People who extol ancient Greece and Rome as ‘civilised’ obviously use the word in this final sense.  They see ‘enlightenment’ and ‘refinement’ as being enough to outweigh the barbarity of slavery or their many-godded naturalistic religions.  They see civilisation even though neither Greece nor Rome had then been blessed with the respect for the dignity of each human life that is at the foundation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and which is elemental to our concept of ‘civilisation’.  Unlike Hamlet, the ancients had not heard the beautiful notion ‘that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.’

The reference to the dignity of each human life is important.  In his piece this morning, Mr Donnelly referred to ‘the inherent dignity of the person’.  The notion comes not just from religion, but from Kant and other leaders of the movement called the Enlightenment (to which Mr Donnelly also refers).

But let us go back to the connection between civility and civilisation – and the unseemliness of the White House.  No one would say that Donald Trump represents whatever we might mean by western civilisation.  No one would say that he represents civility.  He is the antithesis of both.  Worst of all, no one would say that Donald Trump believes in ‘the inherent dignity of the person.’  He is dedicating his presidency to the obliteration of that dignity.

All that makes it curious that those who are loudest in supporting the teaching of western civilisation are often those who support Donald Trump.  For example, in this morning’s Australian, we find Mr Greg Sheridan saying:

Now, it should be remarked straight away, if Kim lives up to this commitment, then Trump will go down in history as a great statesman. But while we must remain open to that possibility, there is no real indication that it is likely.

If there was any doubt that Trump is a disgrace to his nation and his office, it was blown away by the appalling lack of civility that Trump and his ministers showed last weekend to his allies – and, if it matters, the leaders of those nations that truly represent what might called the flowering of that evanescent thing called western civilisation.  In order to qualify as a statesman, you have to be skilled in the management of public affairs – and you have to be civil.  Trump is disqualified on both counts.

Another disqualification for Trump is that any view of western civilisation must entail a subscription to the rule of law.  Trump treats the rule of law with contempt.

This discussion suggests that those who wish to promote the teaching of western civilisation need to refine what they may have in mind.  It may help to remember in this and other discussions that being ‘civilised’ entails being civil.

Then there is the epithet ‘western’ – presumably, as opposed to ‘eastern.’  At least one problem then is that when we say that we are inherently different to other people, we rarely think that the other people got the best deal – we nearly always think we are better off than them.  That is not the path that we want our university students to tread.  On one view, it is the root of intellectual evil.  What I have not seen in any of this discussion is any claim that western civilisation is in some way inferior to the eastern variety.  That would be like saying that you can get a better feed from a Chinese take-away than at the Tour d’Argent.

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